'Inside Out': Film Review

It’s all in your mind, Pixar-style.

The latest Pixar feature personifies the sensations of early adolescence as animated characters.

A ‘60s avant-garde head trip repackaged as a big slice of mainstream entertainment, Inside Out could easily have been titled Childhood’s End, as it ingeniously personifies the furiously erupting sensations associated with the onset of adolescence as a bunch of emotionally competitive cartoon characters.

This latest conceptually out-there creation from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.; Up) serves up some abstractions and flights of deconstructive fancy that will most likely go over the heads of viewers with ages in the single digits. But this adventurous outing manages the great Pixar trick of operating on two levels — captivating fun for kids, disarming smarts for adults — that sets the studio apart. Reliably big summer grosses appear in store.

Although the outward physical story of the script by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley traces the difficult adjustment suffered by tomboyish 11-year-old hockey player Riley when she’s uprooted by her parents from an idyllic Minnesota life to an unfriendly San Francisco, the real setting is inside the girl’s head. It’s a highly combustible place, a control room staffed by the buoyant, blue-haired Joy; red, top-blowing Anger; purplish, equivocating Fear; green, eye-rolling Disgust and squat, all-blue Sadness.

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The mind, as we know, is a hectic place with all sorts of things bouncing around in it, and Docter and his team have visualized it in very antiseptic, almost '60s TV Star Trek fashion, as a room centered around a control panel and lined with shelves and tubes where memories and thoughts are stored. Joy has always held sway in Riley’s heretofore happy life; but now, faced with a depressing new home, an unfamiliar school, no friends and the loss of her old hockey team, Sadness, with assists from the others, is definitely ascendant.

It all flashes by very quickly, but at night control passes over to the long-term memory bank (which is hilariously seen at one point being divested of such content as piano lessons and the names of U.S. presidents), and there is a literal train of thought. If this were a different kind of film, you could easily imagine you were headed in the direction of William S. Burroughs and his friends (although if there is a sequel, it might have to deal with the effect of mind-altering substances on the brain).

As it is, Joy and Sadness take a trip down the rabbit hole of Riley’s fraying psyche, which leads into very foreign and internalized territory as far as mainstream animation is concerned. Externally, Riley is slipping fast, withdrawing from her solicitous and caring parents, rebelling against her new surroundings, becoming sullen and, for the first time in her life, is genuinely depressed, all of which leads her to plot running away from home.

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What this looks like from the inside is a turbulent, decomposing landscape traversed by an increasingly desperate Joy and her ever-present companion Sadness, whose exile has seen Disgust, Fear and Anger completely assume control of Riley. The outcasts endure a perilous journey during which the physical representations of Riley’s idyllic childhood all come toppling down and the illusions of innocence, essentially represented by a kid-friendly elephant (with odd accoutrements from other critters), must be left behind.

Although this journey through the psychic and emotional underworld could have been a lot more harrowing, hellish and Bosch-like than it is, it will still probably appear perilous enough to real kids younger than Riley, who have never suffered through a crisis before.

What the film charts, then, in its highly original and disarmingly physicalized way, is the competition among the oppositional aspects of human nature. In this respect, Joy is the protagonist and heroine, but the script doesn’t pretend that any of the other emotions couldn’t take over and lead one to the wrong destination.

It’s an audacious concept, and Docter’s imagination, along with those of his numerous collaborators, is adventurous and genially daft enough to put it over. And there are unexpected surges of emotion in the late-going, as Riley’s equilibrium is re-established and the primacy of the parent-child bond is reaffirmed.

Amy Poehler’s energetic voicing of Joy dominates the dialogue, and quite agreeably so. All the other voice actors blend in nicely without being too eccentric — Bill Hader portrays Fear, Mindy Kaling is Disgust, Lewis Black is Anger and Phyllis Smith is the unassertive but undeniable Sadness. Among the “real” characters, Kaitlyn Dias plays Riley, Diane Lane is Mom and Kyle MacLachlan is Dad.

In a cheeky move on the part of Bay Area-based Pixar, San Francisco is, for once, portrayed in a negative light (the family’s new home is located on a cramped, dingy downtown street). As usual with the company’s fare, there are plenty of blink-and-they’re-gone jokes, including the depiction of the part of the brain that creates dreams as a movie studio.

In the end, Inside Out has to be one the most conceptually trippy films ever made as a PG-rated popcorn picture for the general public.

Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Voice cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter
Co-director: Ronnie Del Carmen
Screenwriters: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, original story by Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Executive producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
Editor: Kevin Nolting
Music: Michael Giacchino

Rated PG, 94 minutes  

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